As has been reiterated extensively by the Magic community, by Wizards themselves, and in this very series, Magic is not a singular playing experience. With a multitude of different formats – both officially sanctioned and homebrewed – the game has never exclusively been the domain of 1v1 duels. Despite being its main intent and focus from the onset (and if we’re being brutally honest, still represents the vast majority of Magic gameplay), Magic nevertheless quickly morphed beyond what Richard Garfield originally envisioned. As early as Alpha and Beta, players experimented with different ways to enjoy the game, including the idea of playing against more than one opponent. Magic originally never had codified multiplayer rules, but its appeal quickly grew and it now officially supports a host of variants to that end, many of which were adopted from the player base themselves. Whether it’s Two-Headed Giant, General / Emperor, Range of Influence, Prismatic, or any other conceivable concept you can come up with, there is no shortage on ways to involve multiple players. Want to play on teams? Take your pick. Want to try a more co-op experience? Release the Horde! Want to test your mettle in an All v One situation? Archenemy has you covered.
That all being said, if you’re sitting down with three or more people, the default Magic option usually ends up being the tried-and-true Free For All. This is generally what people refer to when they envision multiplayer Magic, of which Commander itself is yet another subset. Many players enter, one player leaves.
Yet as is the case with any multiplayer format, not everyone is going to automatically be on board with facing additional foes. Sometimes it’s because their deck isn’t really capable of handling extra enemies. Some don’t like that multiplayer games take longer to play than a duel. And some don’t particular enjoy the one nuanced thing that undoubtedly rears its head in every multiplayer game: table politics.
In the most basic sense, table politics is one part battlefield management and one part courtly intrigue. With a singular opponent, you only have a handful of tactical layers to consider, such as with which creatures to attack, which to hold back on defense, gauging your opponent’s defensive capabilities, and steeling your own responses when they press the advantage. In normal Magic, all you have to do is take your opponent to zero before they do the same to you.
Multiplayer Magic has all of that…just amplified exponentially. The larger the table size, the more opponents and the more damage needed to secure victory.
The thing is, barring certain deck styles or abusive damage combos, most decks simply don’t have the resources necessary to wage a war on three, four, five fronts at once. If you attack too brazenly, you easily leave yourself open to counterattacks by not just one opponent but any number who may find it opportunistic. If you do something that overtly punishes the entire board, you’re risking the ire of not just one response but several. And that’s assuming your deck is even capable of addressing every single type of threat that is bound to crop up…which it isn’t. Guaranteed.
In short, it’s practically impossible to play multiplayer Magic with the same mindset of a duel. Not only is doing so more likely to get yourself killed, it also tries to circumvent what makes that style of the game fundamentally unique. Winning a multiplayer game is as much about timing, threat assessment, and yes, a bit of politicking, as it is the cards in your deck. Sometimes you will need to work together to stop a particularly dangerous threat by a specific player in that moment. Other times deflecting your own status on the board can buy yourself time to rebuild, or at least have the active player turn their attention briefly elsewhere. A subtle suggestion here, an overt statement of the necessity to remove this card there, and so on. Table politics can be used to get other people to spend their resources to deal with a problem instead of you, and at its most craven, helps you buy the time needed to set yourself up for your own power move. But it can also be as simple as trying like hell to stay alive. It is the hidden game within a game.
One such table politics scenario is deciding whether a particular move on your part should be done proactively or reactively. Let’s call it the Big Gun Conundrum.
Say you have Big Gun. This Gun is powerful, scary, and all kinds of problematic for your opponents. It is most certainly the type of thing that they are going to react to. The question is how you want to present it.
Scenario One is to simply stroll up and drop the Big Gun on the table. It’s there for all to see. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to use it. But you could. And now everyone else knows you could too. They know that whoever attempts to push it off the table is likely going to be shot with the Big Gun, and that’s not something they want. At first it creates a detente, wherein players will leave you and your Big Gun alone until they can figure out how to deal with removing the Big Gun without overly suffering as a result. At a minimum it buys you time, or at least gets people to leave you a lone. But the longer it sits, the more the table in general will feel compelled to deal with it. It’s technically not hurting anyone in the moment, but no one wants to be held at gunpoint forever.
Scenario Two is to keep your Big Gun hidden until it’s used. Whether this is a showy response to someone else’s posturing or you making a definitive statement on your own, you pull the Big Gun out and immediately set it off. People weren’t expecting to see this Big Gun, and now that it’s out in the open, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s in their face and they must figure out whether – or if – they can handle its blast. On the one hand, pulling the Big Gun out of nowhere makes it more likely that it’ll achieve its goal as a potent weapon. On the other hand, firing this surprise Big Gun turns everyone’s attention towards you, regardless of who its target was. Whether out of fear or self-preservation, your actions, even if initially successful, have just shifted the table threat in your direction. At best it could be met with knee-jerk responses. At worst, you become the major problem on the board (even if it’s unwarranted) until someone else pulls out their own Big Gun. After all, if you were able to pull one Big Gun out of nowhere, what’s to stop you from pulling out another? It may be more likely to hit its mark, but its presence ensures you may only get one shot off.
Commander games are chock full of Big Gun style cards, all of which can be devastating if timed correctly and leveraged in the right circumstances. There are occasions when one approach is more prudent than the other, depending on your end goals in that moment, though both have the means to be successful.
For this week’s pick, we’re going to look at a card that is tailor made for Scenario One. Because in Magic, few cards represent a Big Gun like the prospect of a repeatable counterspell.
Today we have: Ertai, the Corrupted
Name: Ertai, the Corrupted
Focus: Counter Magic
Highlights: Oh Ertai. It’s hard to find a better character in Magic’s history that you simultaneously feel sympathy for but also can’t stand either. A brilliant and talented young hotshot mage during the Weatherlight story, he was regrettably left behind on Rath, fell in love with a Phyrexian cyborg and then lost her, willingly became Crovax’s lapdog, and then accidentally dies after killing and resurrecting Squee endless times. Although initially a hero, he was always a bit of an arrogant jerk, and though his fate is certainly sad – being left behind as everyone else escaped – his death was also fitting as a result of everything that came afterwards.
But we digress.
The second legendary card for Ertai, Ertai, the Corrupted is the epitome of a card that’s going to be more useful as a deterrent than for its main purpose. For five mana, you get a 3/4 creature with a very powerful activation. It states that for one Blue mana and sacrificing a creature or enchantment, you can tap him to counter any spell. The fact that this is an unrestricted counterpell makes it highly advantageous in EDH games, rather than having to worry about specific subsets at any given moment. Moreover, the fact that his ability is repeatable every turn also ensures that, so long as you have the ammunition and can keep him alive, you have a lot of vero power over what is cast. Or, at least, you have the capability to threaten said veto power. And that threat alone can be almost as useful. If you can get players to second guess which cards to play, or pull their punches out of fear of being countered, that is easily worth the five mana to put him out.
Survivability is also what makes this version of version of Ertai so appealing. His earlier version with Ertai, Wizard Adept does cost slightly less, but he brings with him a fragile 1/1 frame, and while his earlier iteration doesn’t require a sacrifice to counter a spell, it does need four mana instead. In many circumstances Erta 1.0 is indeed a more ideal card, but in EDH, those combination of effects just make him too easy of a target to be picked off.
Plus, Ertai, the Corrupted is about 80% cheaper to purchase.
This tri-color version of the dark wizard Ertai does have its own limitations, though. For one, it requires a deck with at least those three colors in it. Its single mana costs and activation does make easier to splash in decks of more than three colors, but it is definitely not going to fit in every deck. Second, not everyone is going to love sacrificing a permanent every time they want to counter, though with the right build that too can be mitigated. If nothing else, Ertai is still capable of sacrificing himself for one final counter.
Finally, because Ertai is legendary, he does have the option to be used as a Commander. His efficacy to that end, however, will be entirely based on how much you try to embolden his ability. That is, building a deck around negating his sacrifice costs is one thing and likely would be fine, but trying to abuse his counter abilities such that you’re firing them off constantly or locking down the board will put enough players on edge such that, after a fashion, he’ll become a kill-on-site Commander.
And if you’re going to use a Big Gun, you kind of want to have the ability to shoot it at least once.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
You can discuss this article over on our social media!